PI Original Angela Caputo Friday February 26th, 2010, 2:41pm

Prisoners Of The Census

State Rep. LaShawn Ford is pushing the Prisoner Census Adjustment Act to ensure that inmates' hometowns, not Illinois' prison towns, can claim them in the Census.

About 19 percent of Illinois' Brown County residents are African American. Or at least that's what the latest census count says. You sure wouldn't know it by visiting any school in the local district. That's because less than one percent of students enrolled in CUSD 1 are black. In reality, Brown County draws all of its diversity from the local prison, Mount Sterling's Western Illinois Correctional Center. But the prison population is factored into the county's census count, meaning Brown County residents have benefited from the inflated population numbers with more political representation and federal and state funding.

The rub, Chicago Democratic State Rep. LaShawn Ford tells us, is that in towns across Illinois, those extra resources never enter the prison walls. And on the outside, "those communities don't know how to represent those people,"  Ford says. "And they have little interest in doing so." Worse yet, the policy diverts cash from the resource-starved minority communities from which a disproportionate amount of prisoners hail, despite the fact that the average inmate returns home a mere six months after being locked up.

To put things in perspective, consider this research conducted by the Prison Policy Initiative. During the 2000 census count, Cook County lost roughly 26,000 people as a result of this policy. As Ford points out, that meant less money for job training and drug treatment programs needed to fight recidivism. It could be politically costly as well, considering that Cook County's largely-African American districts might lose a congressional seat during the 2011 redistricting process.

This year, there's an unprecedented opportunity to change the formula. That's because the Census Bureau is giving states authority to decide for the first time which address -- home or prison -- is used for the upcoming census count. The census bureau is even prepared to release the state's prison count earlier -- by May 2011 -- to help Illinois factor the data into its redistricting plans. Ford introduced the Prisoner Census Adjustment Act (HB 4650) this session to ensure that the hometown addresses -- not prison addresses -- are used for the count from now on.

The bill appears to be gaining momentum, making it out of committee earlier this month. Still, Ford tells us that he needs eight more votes to move the measure through the House. As the Trib reports, he's put some concessions on the table to make the measure more attractive. For starters, Ford plans to introduce an amendment that would allow the prison towns to count inmates who are serving sentences upwards of 10 years. (So far, it hasn't surfaced.)

Illinois' prison towns won't be easily persuaded. Indeed, they are gearing up to fight the bill. In Jacksonville, home to the Jacksonville Correctional Center, the Journal Courier recently reported that Mayor Andy Ezard is building a campaign to fight the legislation. His rationale:  “It’s kind of like colleges — it’s where you lay your head,” Ezard said. “[Eighty] percent of the kids who go to IC don’t live in Jacksonville, but they’re counted here.”

Unfortunately, it's less like a university and more like a low-maintenance business. Downstate Centralia has gotten hip to that reality. As Jessica Pupovac reports in the latest issue of Illinois Issues, the town is trying to annex the Centralia Correctional Center because its 1,500 inmates would boost the town's bottom line by $200,000 a year. Ford says it's time these prison towns find a new economic engine. "We have made prisons a commodity. They benefit from the fact that they have hotels and restaurants at our expense," he tells us. "We need to focus on making sure that our communities stay whole."

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